Virtue Ethics: an ancient solution to a modern problem

69729_aristotle_lgby Peter D.O. Smith

Introduction

This article is neither a defense of nor an attack against either religion or secularism. It treats them as well established sociological facts and no more than that. I take them as given and argue that a greater moral good can be achieved if the two belief systems find common moral ground in virtue ethics.

Why should we care?

Moral choices infuse most aspects of our life, whether we know it or not. And a great number of these moral choices are bad ones. This is why our prisons are filled to overflowing [1], and recidivism is so high at 66% [2]. This is why we have so many war dead and this is why so many die violent deaths at the hands of murderers or radical ideologues. This is also why we have such an inequitable distribution of wealth. This is why cheating is rampant at schools and universities [3]. We maintain large standing armies to protect ourselves from the bad moral choices of others and on occasion we use it to inflict our bad moral choices on others. This is why we have no qualms in spying on our own citizens [4] or in killing without due process. This is why almost everyone has been the victim of crime, unfairness, injustice, discrimination, bullying [5], sexism, racism, ageism or other forms of bigotry, bias, and discrimination. This is why stalking is commonplace [6].
Bad moral choices touch us all and are the major cause of suffering in today’s world. Every person who has been jilted by a cheating partner has felt that suffering. Marital infidelity is the most common cause of divorce and abuse is another important cause [7]. One in five women are sexually assaulted at university [8]. Even natural disasters such as earthquakes or floods are compounded by moral failures as nations don’t respond adequately. Famines become moral failures when we cannot distribute food where and when it is needed. Our economic systems become moral failures when they turn into instruments of greed. Our political systems become moral failures when they are used for the advantage of the powerful, to exploit or neglect the weak.
The point I am making is that moral suffering is real, pervasive and needs attention. We have made great progress in reducing material suffering, but only some progress in reducing moral suffering. This is the important challenge that faces us today, to reduce moral suffering with the same degree of success that we have reduced material suffering.

What then is the problem?

The problem quite simply is that, in comparative terms, we do not give moral problems much attention at all and that we give it the wrong kind of attention, by creating a growing thicket of rules and regulations [9].

Modern society rewards material progress while neglecting moral progress. We have huge budgets for science research and we give large rewards to outstanding achievers in science. But society allocates far smaller amounts to advance moral interests or to reward moral achievers. As a simple example, of the six Nobel awards, only one (Peace) has a moral dimension [10]. Of the other 21 high-honour prizes, only seven have a moral component [11]. School education has a strong science bias but gives little attention to moral education [12]. Our criminal justice system spends a great deal on addressing the outcome of moral problems but little on addressing the causes of moral problems, with the result we have a recidivism rate of 66% [2]. We punish moral offenses but we do not prevent them. We have resorted to a form of legislated morality with our criminal justice and human rights systems. This is a framework with large gaps that does not address or give guidance to private morality.

We are becoming a rules based society, but the rules have only a weak hold because they lack intrinsic motivation [13]. Perhaps the most dramatic example of this was the collapse of the banking system. Banking is one of the most highly regulated parts of the economy, and yet that does not prevent abuse and exploitation [14]. Without intrinsic motivation the rules become a challenge to find means of evasion. We have reacted by adding more rules but it is only a matter of time before more means are found to evade them too. There has been an explosive growth in criminal laws. For the past twenty-five years, a period over which the growth of the federal criminal law has come under increasing scrutiny, Congress has created over 500 new crimes per decade [9]. Adding to this, the Administration is increasingly relying on mandates and directives.

A modern problem

Western society, for a long time, had a broad consensus on morality that was derived from religion. Indeed religion can be seen, in sociological terms, as society’s way of promoting cohesion through moral consensus [15]. Modernity and the Enlightenment have weakened the hold of religious morality, providing space for alternative conceptions of it to take hold. Modernity introduced a spirit of utilitarianism [16] and this has shaped present day society’s concept of morality. But it was not merely the concept that changed, but also the authority of moral systems. Religious moral systems derived their authority from their concept of God and this helped to provide intrinsic motivation. With the new utilitarian morality a new authority was introduced, the individual. Inevitably this has resulted in a weakened and diffuse moral sensibility that contains many contradictions. This new concept of morality has been accompanied by a shift from intrinsic to extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is, by its very nature, less effective.

With this new concept of morality came a changed approach to society’s problems. The spirit of utilitarianism has created a tacit assumption that alleviating material need reduces the impetus for moral wrongs. There is a belief that moral wrongs are largely the outcome of material conditions. Thus effort has been directed to solving material problems, which have in any case been shown to have easy solutions, while true moral problems remain intractable and so are neglected. We have been picking the low hanging fruit.

We are divided by differing concepts of morality

With the weakening of religious morality and the widespread adoption of utilitarian approaches a sharp moral divide has opened up in society.

The secular world has adopted a tacit, inchoate form of moral consequentialism. It believes there is no absolute good or bad, only that acts should be judged by their consequences. It rejects the absolute lawgiver and the laws of religious deontology. It makes the individual the final arbiter of his acts.

The religious world, by contrast, believes in absolute good and bad and that acts can themselves be inherently good or bad. It believes there is an absolute lawgiver that has handed down a set of rules for a good life. The religious world rejects moral consequentialism on the grounds that it is a shifting and dangerous moral system that is easily tailored to suit the needs and desires of the moment.

As consequentialism or utilitarianism rose to the fore, reflecting the material and mechanical spirit of the times, challenging long held moral conceptions, Protestant Christianity (and Islam) retreated into a form of hardline deontology. The result is the strong ethical divide we see today.

There is thus a yawning chasm between the moral concepts of the religious and secular worlds. This chasm weakens the ability of society to address common moral problems since it lacks consensus.

Society has reacted to this problem with a growing thicket of laws with no end in sight [17]. This has proven to be a poor solution, since adding rules merely invites further evasion if they are not reinforced or accompanied by some form of intrinsic motivation.

The need for a middle ground

We are a common people with common moral problems that affect us all. To solve these problems we need a unifying moral concept that both the religious and secular worlds can accept. For example, schools are a place where we should also give our youth moral preparation for adult life, and schools serve both world-views. This is one example of why it is necessary that we find common ground. Deontology and moral consequentialism are not acceptable to both sides of the divide and so cannot fulfill this need.

Which raises the question: is there a middle moral ground where the secular and religious worlds can meet and agree? Today’s society places a strong emphasis on the concepts of justice and rights. These can be seen as instances of what are known as ‘virtues’ and it is in virtue ethics, the third major branch of ethical philosophy, that I see an important opportunity for finding common ground between the secular and the religious worlds. Virtue ethics shows promise as the means of filling in the gaps of legislated morality. One can think of it as being the soft flesh on the hard skeleton of legislated morality, making a healthy, functioning body that is directed to the purpose of flourishing. Virtue ethics can be seen as an important form of intrinsic motivation that makes the regulated rules of society more effective while providing strong guidance to unregulated, private conduct. It is not accidental that here has been a sharp increase in academic interest in virtue ethics lately [18].

The appeal of virtue ethics

Virtue ethics is an enduring idea with ancient roots. Aristotle, some 2,300 years ago, clearly articulated the ethical philosophy known today as virtue ethics [19, 20]. Cicero, close to the time of Christ, wrote of it as being one of the three main contending moral systems of the day [21]. Catholicism, early on, incorporated it into its teachings where it continues to this day to be a major influence [22]. The last 50 years have seen a marked revival of academic interest in virtue ethics [18, 23], and Alisdair McIntyre’s publication of After Virtue was a landmark in this revival [24].

Virtue ethics looks neither to rules nor to consequences. Instead it considers internal motivations directed at realizing the telos, or end, of a “good” person, and it is in this that the religious and secular worlds can find agreement. In my mind, the appeal of virtue ethics is fivefold.

First, the generally accepted list of virtues is free of religious terminology or implications. This makes the virtues acceptable to the secular world. At the same time the religious world finds them a natural extension of its beliefs. For example, Catholicism has embraced virtue ethics, and both secularists and theists would readily agree on the list of 52 virtues given by the Virtue Project [25]. Theists would add faith, hope and charity to that list while secularists would ignore them, a minor difference. The differences that the many belief systems bring to this are largely ones of terminology and emphasis. It is an ethical system that is neutral about belief systems and can therefore be accepted by all belief systems.

Second, supplying an internal motivation is a better way of obtaining a good outcome, whether of act or consequence. It is widely agreed that intrinsic motivation is more effective than extrinsic motivation (intrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it is inherently interesting or enjoyable, and extrinsic motivation refers to doing something because it leads to a separable outcome[13]).

Third, by supplying intrinsic principles, rather than rules, it is adaptable to a wide range of circumstances. A rules based system can only adapt to new circumstances by adding new rules, something that becomes intolerable in the long run.

Fourth, virtue ethics supplies a means of internalizing and integrating rules into a person’s behavior, making them more effective. It is a powerful way of reinforcing the rules and regulations of society by translating them into intrinsic motivation.

Fifth, virtue ethics can supply a new source of meaning, independent of but complementary to religious belief. It can be an antidote to the angst of modernity. This is a large field that is only touched on here.

In short, virtue ethics is capable of supplying an intrinsic motivation that is acceptable to both the secular and religious worlds. We live in an overwhelmingly rules dominated world. Virtue ethics offers a way of internalizing and then integrating rules such that they become intrinsically motivating. It is a promising field for finding common ground between the secular and religious worlds, to makes rules and regulations more effective, and to provide a source of meaning for the non-religious.

A practical solution

The attraction of virtue ethics is its practicality and simplicity. It can be formulated in simple terms that are appealing to most people. It is independent of belief systems and yet most belief systems can accept it, with only changes in terminology. It can easily be taught at an elementary level while still be challenging at a philosophical level. It is easily incorporated into codes of conduct for organizations.

But it is not just a solution to individual moral concerns. It can also be expanded to any domain of activity as an example discussed by Bruni and Sugden shows in the case of market economics [26]. They describe the market as a practice having a telos of voluntary and mutually beneficial exchanges. They explain: “On the supposition that the telos of the market is mutual benefit, a market virtue in the sense of virtue ethics is an acquired character trait with two properties: possession of the trait makes an individual better able to play a part in the creation of mutual benefit through market transactions; and the trait expresses an intentional orientation towards and a respect for mutual benefit. In this section, we present a catalog of traits with these properties, without claiming that our catalog is exhaustive.” Their catalogue of traits, or virtues, include universality, enterprise and alertness, respect for trading partners, trust and trustworthiness, acceptance of competition, non-rivalry, self-help and stoicism about reward.

Another example is the Character Counts! Coalition for moral education in schools, which uses a virtue ethics framework centered on respect, responsibility, trustworthiness, caring, justice, fairness, civic virtue and citizenship [27].

These examples are intended to show that a virtue ethics framework can readily be adapted to any domain of activity or ‘practice.’ This makes virtue ethics a very flexible approach that can be tailored to all parts of our culture.

The role of secularism

Secularism has defined itself in opposition to theism. Its great achievement was the separation of religion from public life. Going beyond that, some secularists have set themselves the goal of destroying religion. This seems to be an ill advised goal as its chief result has been: to poison the public perception of atheism [28] and to harden the stance of Christian fundamentalism. Religion is a deep seated sociological phenomenon and is not going away. It has been part of human history for at least 40,000 years and remains an important part of all societies. It is far too durable a phenomenon and there is no realistic prospect that it will be ended [29]. The criticisms directed at religion by secularism have prompted strong reforms in religion and so have been useful for that end. The so-called war between secularism and religion is now becoming counterproductive as it obscures the major issue facing society, that of moral suffering. Now it is time that secularism embraces this problem and treats religion as an ally and not an enemy, or at least declares a truce. This does not mean religion should not be criticized when the occasion demands it, and indeed criticism can be a healthy impetus for reform. But attention should be shifted to the real enemy, moral suffering. To overcome this enemy the secular world should make common cause with the religious world. It can do this by embracing virtue ethics and making it the central plank of a morally committed secularism.

A solution to future problems

Population growth and rapid industrialization of the third world will create a situation of resource shortages and ultimately low growth [30]. Coping with this new world will require a major re-adjustment of values away from today’s one of rampant consumerism centered on hedonistic happiness. It will require a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, frugality will become the new watchword. Virtue ethics is our best hope of navigating this challenging new world. As Julia Annas, in Intelligent Virtue [31], explains, the virtues are a template for flourishing, in that to become a virtuous person is to become a flourishing person. It is a move away from hedonistic happiness to the eudaimonia of the virtues. This is a radical move away from the idea of happiness that depends on circumstances or goods, a necessary move in the resource constrained world that lies in our future.

That this goal is not so elusive can readily be appreciated when we compare the levels of positive emotions of some poor countries with those of some rich countries [32]:

Panama 85%, Singapore 46%;
Lesotho 77%, United Kingdom 77%;
Swaziland 76%, Germany, 74%.
_____
Peter D.O. Smith is a foundry metallurgist, quality engineer, software engineer, and corporate manager (recently retired), who lives by the motto fides quaerens intellectum.

[1] US incarceration rate.

[2] Recidivism in the United Sates.

[3] Academic cheating fact sheet.

[4] The Snowden Files.

[5] 44% of children report having been bullied.

[6] Stalking.

[7] Causes of divorce.

[8] Sexual assaults at university.

[9] Revisiting the explosive growth of new crimes.

[10 Nobel prizes, literature, medicine, physics, chemistry, peace, and economics.

[11] Other high honor prizes.

[12] How Moral Education Is Finding Its Way Back into America’s Schools.

[13] Ryan and Deci, Intrinsic and Extrinsic motivation.

[14] Why only One Banker Went to Jail.

[15] Nicholas Wade, The Faith Instinct.

[16] Trends in utilitarianism – Google books Ngram.

[17] Business Ethics: The Law of Rules.

[18] Trends in virtue ethics – Google books Ngram.

[19] Nichomacaen Ethics.

[20] Notes on Nichomachean Ethics.

[21] On Moral Ends, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Julia Annas.

[22] The Cardinal Virtues in the Middle Ages: A Study in Moral Thought from the Fourth to the Fourteenth Century.

[23] Contemporary virtue ethics.

[24] Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virtue.

[25] The Virtues Project.

[26] Reclaiming virtue ethics for economics.

[27] The Six Pillars of Character.

[28] Net rating of religious belief systems.

[29] Growth of Religion.

[30] Paul Gilding, The Great Disruption.

[31] Julia Annas, Intelligent Virtue.

[32] Gallup poll, Positive emotions worldwide.

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98 thoughts on “Virtue Ethics: an ancient solution to a modern problem

  1. A virtue approach to ethics has always appealed to me simply because it makes use of the flexibility of conceptual space without importing the rigid axioms of physical space. So the absolutism and universalism of modern ethical approaches are out (imported from the success of science, nonetheless!), replaced by a practical teleology that relates the ethics of human behaviour to the specific roles that specific humans are playing. More to the point, the virtue approach deconstructs the authority that is associated with the absolutist/universalist approaches to ethics and forces normal people to make reasoned decisions about who they are, who they want to be, and therefore what they should be doing.

    Analyzing my choices in the context of my particular identity, my particular roles, and my particular goals makes so much sense — and I increasingly have a harder and harder time understanding how anyone can seriously attempt to defend the traditional deontological and utilitarian approaches to ethics.

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  2. I’m not aware of systematic studies on this (then again, are there systematic studies on ethical upbringing in general?). But unless you are ready to question the very idea of educational upbringing I don’t see any reason to doubt it has effects. And of course there is tons of anecdotal evidence, all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

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  3. Hi labnut,
    I don’t disagree with you nearly as much as one might expect! You approach says let’s ignore the meta-ethics and just think about ethical prescriptions. I can agree, though the tricky parts of ethics are trading off different moral goods against each other, and your essay gives little prescription about how to approach that.

    For example, when a hotelier offers a public service, does the moral good of treating customers equally override the moral good of allowing people freedom of action?

    Or, if we’re talking taxpayer-funded schools, should access be open to all regardless of religion, and should they recognise the pupils’ freedom of religion, or does the good of parental choice and desire to impose their own beliefs mean that a school can discriminate over religion in admissions and then impose religious practice on pupils?

    Now it is time that secularism embraces this problem and treats religion as an ally and not an enemy, or at least declares a truce.

    The stumbling block is whether or not the moral good “equality under the law” supersedes the moral good of “freedom of religion”. Is “religious freedom” a trump card that the religious can play, granting them extra rights and allowing them to do things that a non-religious person could not? Or does equality prevail, with everyone being expected to abide by agreed restrictions, regardless of their individual preferences?

    I’m not sure I agree that we have neglected moral progress. Western society today has higher standards of morality than any previous society, with a much greater emphasis on the equality, status and fair treatment of everyone. Yes, there are many more laws today, but that is mainly a result of the increasingly complexity of society.

    Western society, for a long time, had a broad consensus on morality that was derived from religion.

    I don’t agree that morality was “derived from” religion, rather religion was derived from society and from human morals. In a soundbite, religion is usually a repository for the morals of the previous generation, and it gradually catches up, while always lagging.

    … some secularists have set themselves the goal of destroying religion. This seems to be an ill advised goal as its chief result has been: to poison the public perception of atheism …

    You’ve repeatedly claimed this, but one poll showing the low estimation of atheists by Americans does not prove it. You need to show that the estimation of atheists has got worse since “new atheists” started standing up for themselves. I suggest that the negative feelings towards atheists were there long before “new atheism”. Further, nations where religion has died away most (e.g. Scandinavia) have least disapproval of atheists. Thus disapproval of atheists is really a product of religiosity. Apostasy, heresy and blasphemy have never been that popular with the major religions!

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  4. I see no clear articulation of the author’s conception of ‘virtue ethics’ or what exactly it entails, which is ironic given his claim that “it can be formulated in simple terms that are appealing to most people.” In particular, I can’t tell what he is proposing in this article beyond the vague idea that we should raise children to have internalized values, or that people will tend to behave better if, you know, they actually care about being honest, caring, generous, etc.

    >>Population growth and rapid industrialization of the third world will create a situation of resource shortages and ultimately low growth [30]. Coping with this new world will require a major re-adjustment of values away from today’s one of rampant consumerism centered on hedonistic happiness. It will require a strong sense of responsibility and restraint, frugality will become the new watchword.

    But I thought that material problems had “easy solutions” and were just “low hanging fruit”.

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  5. Okay, it is hard to adequately address this in less than 2,000 words, so I will just list the assumptions that I consider to be completely false:

    * That there was ever a time when people were more or less intrinsically moral than today; there has always been lots of cheating, fraud, and crime the moment people felt they could get away with it, no matter what era, and no less so in times when people took virtue ethics more seriously.

    * That there was ever a time when society relied mostly on intrinsic morality rather than punishments to keep order. In fact, in the past punishments used to be much more severe even for what might today be considered minor or even victimless crimes. Transportation to Van Diemen’s Land for petty theft, death for blasphemy or homosexuality, etc.

    * That one would just have to tell people “hey, why not adopt these virtues”, and they suddenly behave better. One problem in particular is that religious morality is frequently absolutist – expecting everybody to follow along – while virtue ethics is directed at individuals. It may thus be much less attractive to religious people than the author assumes. And how would virtue ethics have any effect on markets, systems specifically and deliberately designed to reward, promote and reinforce short-sighted profit making? Making people embrace stoicism about reward and non-rivalry defeats the entire purpose of having a market in the first place, which is why I would direct our attention to the root of the problem itself.

    * That there is a strong ethical divide in contemporary society – well, in the USA perhaps, okay, but not in most other developed countries.

    * That religion will never go away. There have historically been and there exist today societies in which religion is pretty much irrelevant.

    Apart from that, what I have never understood is how virtue ethicists actually decide what a virtue is without falling back onto another school of ethics. It is all nice to exhort people to be virtuous, but it is kind of like telling people to pick a pretty colour for a paint job and then claiming that one has solved forever the problem of what colour is prettiest. The real question is why for example fairness is supposed to be a virtue in the first place, and it is unclear to me how there can be an answer to it that isn’t deontological, consequentialist or collective human fiat.

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  6. I’m a fan of virtue ethics, but I’m not sure you’ve made your case that they can fix societal moral problems. A bad marriage has different types of problems than a bad society. In a marriage, it only take the agreement of two people to decide what the end should be. What is the telos of a large society? Who gets to decide? Even if every individual successfully integrates the teachings of virtue ethics, I’ll bet there would still be major disagreements about the proper end of the society at large.

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  7. Let me add that the idea of moral education (instilling values and virtuous character traits) is not unique to ‘virtue ethics.’ For example, a utilitarian wants to maximize the total amount of happiness. He might make the judgment that an effective means of achieving this end would be to raise people with a strong moral education and instill values of honesty, integrity, compassion, etc. Likewise, a divine command theorist who wants people to obey God’s commands to not lie or steal or kill might determine that the best way to motivate people to behave this way is to make them internalize the values of honesty and respect for the life and law. And even a deontologist like Kant would place a profound amount of importance on the role of moral education, because it takes a certain cultivation of reason and will to resist desires that violate the categorical imperative.

    This brings me back to my original point, which is that the author doesn’t seem to be talking much about virtue ethics in particular, but just about the general idea of moral education. There *is* a sense in which virtue ethics acts as an alternative normative theory to utilitarianism and deontology (and contractualism), but the author doesn’t say much about virtue ethics in that sense.

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  8. >>So the absolutism and universalism of modern ethical approaches are out (imported from the success of science, nonetheless!)

    Absolutism and universalism in ethics are not simply ‘imported from the success of the sciences.’ They are the rejection of the idea that, say, rights and protections only extend to certain classes of people (whites, men, property holders, etc.), or that certain people are exempt from moral standards just because they are in special positions (e.g., it’s okay for the King to steal because he’s the King!) They are motivated in part by considerations about fairness and inclusiveness to all people. It’s fine to take issue with various formulations of absolutism and universalism in ethical theories, but you should at least recognize that they are motivated by worthwhile moral considerations.

    >>Analyzing my choices in the context of my particular identity, my particular roles, and my particular goals makes so much sense — and I increasingly have a harder and harder time understanding how anyone can seriously attempt to defend the traditional deontological and utilitarian approaches to ethics.

    Well, “analyzing your choices in the context of your particular identity, your particular roles, and your particular goals” doesn’t always say much about the *morality* of what you’re doing. Perhaps you’re a mob enforcer who cruelly tortures and murders innocent people who don’t kowtow to the intimidation of your bosses. Perhaps you love what you do, you take pride in the criminal organization you work for, you’re good at your job, and you are handsomely rewarded for doing it well. (We could replace the mob enforcer example with, say, a greedy and callous Wall Street banker, or a soldier who happily takes part in an unjust war, or a scientist/engineer who is happy to use his talents to design technologies that contribute to a destructive military-industrial complex.) It’s not clear to me which part of your ‘particular’ identity, roles or goals would determine that you are doing something immoral.

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  9. It would be my hope that we don’t stray too far from the author’s central point that by focusing on and exploring the nature of virtue ethics mankind may be better enabled to accomplish a universal goal of eudaimonia.

    To my mind it is largely irrelevant whether engendering virtue is a result of a religious or secular orientation, provided such engendering is central and a common cause. And, therefore, it serves no good purpose in the context of this article to get caught up in the polemics of theistic and atheistic resentments.

    Thus, when the author writes “Western society, for a long time, had a broad consensus on morality that was derived from religion,” I believe he is simply making an historical observation that up until the Enlightenment western society was dominated by a theist-centered worldview. He is not, in my opinion, arguing that *only* religion “causes” moral concerns. As he says, “Modernity and the Enlightenment have weakened the hold of religious morality, providing space for alternative conceptions of it to take hold.”

    The primary thesis here is to propose that a concern for the nature of virtue promotes a dialog in which all members of society can participate. The practical aspects of how this might best be accomplished would require many subsequent essays.

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  10. Interesting stuff. I’m especially intrigued by the virtue-ethical perspective on behavioral economics.

    I agree that the “adding rules” approach hasn’t been effective, but it seems to me that what’s been lacking in our rule-adding process is a respect for and rigorous analysis of the incentives that our rules create. If our public policies were crafted with more emphasis on a realistic evaluation of incentives, I think we’d be doing a lot better.

    In a way, the simplicity of virtue ethics can be a drawback. Virtue ethics focus us on individual choices and an overly-simple model of causation. From this view, a re-offender made a “bad moral choice” by re-offending, and a pregnant teen “made a bad moral choice” by engaging in unprotected sex. Incentives, on the other hand, focus us on complex, systemic causation. From this view, it might be that re-offenders tend to share certain socio-economic or socio-historic factors in common, and preventing recidivism might involve tailoring incentives to these factors.

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  11. One signature benefit of virtue ethics is that it is readily “naturalizable” (in a sufficiently anodyne sense — no need to open more cans of worms than we have to). Owen Flanagan has been pursuing the naturalization of virtue ethics through the idea of “ethics as human ecology”, and I believe he has a new book coming out soon from Oxford devoted to this idea. These days he calls his view “neuro-eudaimonics” and it seems quite promising to me. I don’t know if Flanagan has connected his work to de Waal’s work on proto-morality in monkeys and apes but there’s clearly a connection to be made.

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  12. Many regulars will know me as labnut. In this post I will comment under my real name of Peter Smith.

    yaryaryar,
    Analyzing my choices in the context of my particular identity, my particular roles, and my particular goals makes so much sense

    Yes. Virtue ethics appeals to our sense of identity, our person-hood. We all want to assert our own identity and want to feel it is a worthy identity. Virtue ethics gives expression to this by guiding us to a worthy identity.

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  13. Bill,
    Is there any empirical evidence that teaching people Virtue Ethics actually makes them behave more ethically?

    There is some anecdotal evidence from the Character Counts Coalition. See my reference 12.

    Vera White, principal of Jefferson Junior High in Washington,D.C., was stunned some years ago to realize that children from her school had been part of an angry mob that attacked police and firefighters with rocks and bottles. “Those are my children. If they didn’t care enough to respect the mayor and the fire marshal and everyone else what good does an education do?” She decided to make character education central to the mission of her school. Students now attend assemblies that focus on positive traits such as respect and responsibility. Ms. White initiated the program in 1992; since then theft and fighting have been rare. Unlike other schools in the area, Jefferson has no bars on the windows and no metal detectors.

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  14. Coel,
    I don’t disagree with you nearly as much as one might expect! You approach says let’s ignore the meta-ethics and just think about ethical prescriptions. I can agree, though the tricky parts of ethics are trading off different moral goods against each other, and your essay gives little prescription about how to approach that.

    Glad we have points of agreement. Yes, my essay does not give that guidance because it is not primarily a description of virtue ethics but rather an argument that it can be a meeting point between two world views. But to address your point of trading moral goods against each other. The example you give implies a legalistic, one view is right approach and we must determine that one right view. It is a winners and losers scenario. Virtue ethics approaches this differently by appealing to virtues like tolerance, understanding, accommodation. It seeks a mean between opposing values. It encourages a society that accommodates conflicts of interest by seeking thoughtful compromise.

    I’m not sure I agree that we have neglected moral progress
    The high incarceration rate, high rates of recidivism and increasing wealth inequity are strong pointers.

    I don’t agree that morality was “derived from” religion, rather religion was derived from society and from human morals.
    Nicholas Wade (The Faith Instinct) and Ara Norenzayan (Big God, How religion transformed cooperation and conflict) make similar cases for religion being an adaptive strategy that society evolved to promote cohesion and cooperation.

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  15. lqrvy,
    I see no clear articulation of the author’s conception of ‘virtue ethics’ or what exactly it entails
    That was not the intention. I am talking against a background that virtue ethics is well known and understood.

    But I thought that material problems had “easy solutions” and were just “low hanging fruit”.
    Until now we have been living in a world of growth in availability and opportunity. That growth will inevitably end and we need to adjust to stasis, something we have never had to do before. This is an unprecedented problem that will require major changes in values.

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  16. 1. Re Carl, consequentialist ethics are also readily naturalizable; arguably, more so.
    2. I agree at least to some of Alexander’s plaint; I too think virtue ethics has to dip outside itself, if you will.
    2.1. Arguably, it has some of the same “relativist” possibilities as do consequentialist ethics. With it, namely, WHAT particular virtues is one trying to develop?
    2.2. If two virtues that a virtue ethicist seeks to improve come into conflict, per 2.1, how does a virtue ethicist decide which to favor?
    2.3. If another virtue ethicist, in an identical situation as you in 2.2, makes a different decision, which one is “right”?
    2.4. How do virtue ethicists handle someone who makes theoretically out-of-bounds claims for what constitutes eudaimonia for them? For example (please, no Godwin’s Law brickbats) what if Hitler said, “It is proper for my individual flourishing, and human flourishing in general, to boot Jews out of Europe”?
    2.5. Per Peter, should particular virtues within virtue ethics be static, or change per situations? If they’re changing, then how do we differentiate virtue ethics from consequentialism? What if different people disagree on whether or not a situation faces major changes, i.e., Paul Ehrlich vs Julian Simon on “limits”?
    2.6. Contra Yaryaryar, consequentialism is certainly not absolutist, whether that’s more good, or more bad.
    3. I like Asher’s take on how virtue ethics might be overly simple. (So is deontological ethics, of course.) While we cannot achieve a perfect “view from nowhere,” at least consequentialist ethics encourage us to think situationally in ways the other two main schools don’t.
    3.1 Particular incentives would not be universal, though, and philosophy of course strives for universalism. Even within the capitalistic West, “dropped out” people aren’t incentivized by money.
    3.2 What would virtue ethics say about the use of incentives in general? Would it take them on a case-by-case basis? Obviously, deontological ethics rejects them, and consequentialist ethics supports them in general, while looking at particular incentives on a case-by-case basis.
    4. Do we need to have moral philosophers hammer out a fourth modern school of ethical thought, one that, per my comments on Stephen Law’s post, is based on descriptive, but not prescriptive, use of scientific findings, going beyond behavioral economics research?
    4.1 Is a normative school of ethics even possible?
    4.2 Can people accept quasi-normative ethics?
    5. Other than the goal of developing some particular virtue, must virtue ethics be teleological?
    5.1 Related to that, and Massimo’s probably the best to answer, are there schools of virtue ethics that are clearly not Aristotelian in particular, or classical Greek in general? I know Wikipedia has a bit on this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtue_ethics#Non-Western_tradition
    5.2 Given that Anscombe based his rehabilitation of virtue ethics on having an adequate philosophy of psychology, are we, even 50-some years after his statement, at a point where we do have such an adequate philosophy? Per point 4, I’d say “maybe,” at best.

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  17. Virtue ethics consists into worshipping abstractly defined virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, justice, happiness (Eudaimonia)…

    Virtue ethics was founded by Aristotle, who considered slavery to be necessary… Thus Aristotle contradicted several of the eight virtues he claimed to found ethics on. The fact that his founder could not make virtue ethics work, is telling. Indeed the “virtues” are derivative, not absolute.

    It was virtuous for Aristotle to enslave. Yet slavery is unnatural.
    It was so unnatural that, arguably, it caused the fall of the Greco-Roman empire (by enabling Senatorial plutocracy, which undermined the Republic). A civilizational collapse is no way to survive.

    The Franks, who took control of the West, soon outlawed slavery, thus contradicting Aristotle, and enabling a civilizational system which survives to this day. So this is all very practical: it’s about why, when, how, and for whom, or what, to go to war.

    Naturalist ethics is much better than abstractly defined “virtues”. If one thinks about deeply, surviving as a species (or group) is the fundamental purpose of moral behavior. Ethics, or “mores” comes from “habitual character”. What’s more “habitual” than what insures the survival of the species. True, wisdom, foresight, prudence, fortitude are necessary to insure survival. But they are consequences.

    Some brandish “religion” as something natural ethicists ought to respect. But there is more than 10,000 “religions” known, each of them actually a set of superstitions to enable the rule of some oligarchy (who adores the Hummingbird god of the Aztecs, nowadays?).

    “Religion” means to tie (the people) together. A secular set of beliefs can do this very well, as long as it embraces the Republic of Human Rights, and, thus, survival. Indeed, human rights are best to insure long term survival of the species. They define the virtues Aristotle extolled, but could not define properly enough to insure the survival of his civilization (which was soon destroyed by Alexander, Aristotle’s student and friend).

    The Republic of Human Rights is the only religion upon which all human beings can agree on, and, thus, the only one to respect, and found ethics on.

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  18. This idea that because Aristotle lived in a society that condoned slavery therefore virtue ethics is bullocks keeps rearing its ugly head, but seems to me a total non sequitur. You might as well say that we should throw out Newtonian mechanics because, after all, Newton was also interested in alchemy and the Bible.

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  19. lqrvy,
    Let me add that the idea of moral education (instilling values and virtuous character traits) is not unique to ‘virtue ethics.’
    Indeed, this true. As you said, both the utilitarian and the deontologist might want to instil certain virtues in support of their own systems. This is exactly what the Catholic Church did from the fourth century onwards when they developed their own version of virtue ethics.

    What this indicates is that virtue ethics are the foundation that support the other two major branches of ethics.

    Thomas,
    The primary thesis here is to propose that a concern for the nature of virtue promotes a dialog in which all members of society can participate.
    Precisely. It gives us a common language and a common understanding.

    Asher,
    I agree that the “adding rules” approach hasn’t been effective, but it seems to me that what’s been lacking in our rule-adding process is a respect for and rigorous analysis of the incentives that our rules create.
    Indeed, there is a lot that can be done to intelligently craft incentives into our laws. We already do that in some ways. An example is the tax rebate for charitable donations. Other laws do not lend themselves well to incentives. The problem is that laws in themselves create perverse incentives to subvert the law. Banking is a highly regulated industry and yet a great deal of intelligence was devoted to flouting the regulations. This will continue for as long as respect for the law is missing. And respect for the law is a virtue.

    From this view, it might be that re-offenders tend to share certain socio-economic or socio-historic factors in common, and preventing recidivism might involve tailoring incentives to these factors.
    Yes, and it also means providing adequate support systems when they leave prison. Doing these things require a body of people that care enough to motivate action. It is the caring and the motivation which is the domain of virtue ethics.

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  20. Patrice,
    Virtue ethics consists into worshipping abstractly defined virtues: wisdom, prudence, courage, temperance, justice, happiness
    I would put it differently. It is not a question of worshipping abstract virtues but one of being true our nature. The virtues are an expression of a deep need for moral worth, for a feeling that we are worthy persons. We experience this need because it is our moral behaviour that integrates us into society and gains us acceptance in society.

    Turning now to Aristotle and the problem of slavery. The problem here has nothing to do with the ethical system itself. In fact all three main ethical systems of the time condoned slavery. The problem has to do with moral boundaries. We extend moral worth to people inside our moral boundaries and deny moral worth to people outside our moral boundaries. These boundaries were variously determined by family, tribe, language, customs, ethnicity and geography. Over a long period of time we have extended our moral boundaries, making them more inclusive. This is the truly great achievement of our species.

    Your argument is a form of presentism where you project present conditions back into the past and then judge the past accordingly.

    Naturalist ethics is much better than abstractly defined “virtues”.

    And what does ‘naturalist ethics’ mean? The virtues are the natural expression of our deepest striving for moral worth. What could be more natural than that.

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  21. In addition to people as individuals having good virtues, governments that mandate good rules (or laws) are also needed: laws making it illegal for private businesses to discriminate; laws that prevent private businesses from polluting; laws that provide free emergency contraption for teenage girls; laws that provide economic safety nets and universal healthcare; …

    Maybe what’s missing most from virtue ethics is the bigger picture of the entire society the individual is in?

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  22. Massimo, I agree, is a total non sequitur. Under his point of view we should throw out the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Descartes because they believed in God or even Plato´s work because he felt that the Demiurge is out there. It also means that is difficult to understand that human and social evolution is subject to fluctuations and backtracks, which also means that we have to be charitable with ourselves.

    “The Franks, who took control of the West, soon outlawed slavery, thus contradicting Aristotle, and enabling a civilizational system which survives to this day”.

    Well, you forget the Christian movement that fought against the Roman plutocracy and slavery and paid for it, many Christians were thrown to the lions. Indeed, we need to be charitable with ourselves.

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  23. I don’t think it is the author’s intent to prescribe a perfect ethical system or to argue that virtue ethics can clearly dictate the emphatically correct action to be taken in any given circumstance or situation, especially given the fallible nature of mankind. We have all been in situations where we must choose between the lesser of two evils or the better of two goods.

    He’s instead focusing on virtue ethics as a point of departure in considering what characteristics may or may not aid in the discussion what is meant by human flourishing or the common welfare. The fact that individuals or groups may debate the merits of certain characteristics doesn’t gainsay the merit of the framework or the project itself. And while it may be true that virtue ethics contains consequentialist/utilitarian or even deontological elements, the reverse is certainly true as well. I think it is a mistake to view virtue ethics, especially Aristotle’s, as chiefly a self-help program. Aristotle was certainly interested in the practice of virtue ethics as a pathway to an informed body politic.

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  24. @Peter

    An example is the tax rebate for charitable donations.

    And, of course, laws of that sort could also conceivably create the incentive to fraudulently represent an organization as a charity. As you say – laws often (though I wouldn’t say “always”) create perverse incentives in addition to incentives for the desired behavior. I wouldn’t say a law against burglary itself creates an incentive to burglarize.

    Banking is a highly regulated industry and yet a great deal of intelligence was devoted to flouting the regulations. This will continue for as long as respect for the law is missing. And respect for the law is a virtue.

    The virtue sure would help. But I think it’s possible to create banking regulations that result in a bearable banking system with minimal cheating even without them. Whistle-blowing laws and immunity deals, among many other mechanisms, can help a great deal if designed well.

    Doing these things require a body of people that care enough to motivate action. It is the caring and the motivation which is the domain of virtue ethics.

    That’s a great point, and it’s one of the reasons I’m a fan of virtue ethics. If nothing else, virtues provide us with a way to quickly approximate what would otherwise be horrendously complex and overlapping sets of cost/benefit dependencies. A simple, pure motivation can often be a stronger one, and a “close enough” approximation for behavior that will create a stable system is often more than good enough.

    Deciding which virtues to promote could also be (to some extent) a matter of incentive analysis. For example, if people in the U.S. saw “interdependence” as a virtue, we might possibly behave very differently within systems that involve cost/benefit distributions at a group/society level. We’d certainly see re-distributive policies differently.

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  25. Socratic,
    with that comment you are doing a good stand-in for DM, who seems otherwise occupied 🙂

    I like Asher’s take on how virtue ethics might be overly simple. (So is deontological ethics, of course.)
    Practical, workable things are usually simple. Moral behaviour is about the everyday behaviour of the man in the street so it needs to be simple, direct and relevant.

    Do we need to have moral philosophers hammer out a fourth modern school of ethical thought, one that, per my comments on Stephen Law’s post, is based on descriptive, but not prescriptive, use of scientific findings, going beyond behavioral economics research?

    How would that change things? And what would it look like? Would we discover new moral laws or obsolete old moral laws. That is hardly likely considering that moral thought has been such a deep preoccupation for such a long period of time. The problems with moral thought have always been in the observance, not in the definition. Science is not going to change people’s predilection for their neighbours’ wives or their neighbour’s property, nor is it going to make them more honest with their insurance claims.

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  26. Philip,
    governments that mandate good rules (or laws) are also needed: laws making it illegal for private businesses to discriminate; laws that prevent private businesses from polluting; laws that provide free emergency contraption for teenage girls; laws that provide economic safety nets and universal healthcare

    These are all good things that we need. But there are two questions:
    1) where do they come from?
    2) why should people observe them?

    Virtue ethics is the answer to both questions.

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  27. Asher,
    virtues provide us with a way to quickly approximate what would otherwise be horrendously complex and overlapping sets of cost/benefit dependencies. A simple, pure motivation can often be a stronger one

    Exactly. Utilitarianism relies on a hazardous, unreliable cost/benefit calculation. Just as we have moral boundaries, so do we have situational boundaries. It is easy, in our imagination at least, to extend our moral boundaries to include people remote and unlike us. But it is very hard to extend our situational boundaries because it adds such great complexity. The great weakness of utilitarianism is that judgement of consequences is limited by situational boundaries.

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  28. Thomas,
    I think it is a mistake to view virtue ethics, especially Aristotle’s, as chiefly a self-help program. Aristotle was certainly interested in the practice of virtue ethics as a pathway to an informed body politic.

    Yes, indeed. Ethical individuals are the foundation of an ethical body politic in two ways:
    1) we tend to elect people who reflect our values;
    2) we hold them accountable by our values.

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  29. 1) where do they come from?
    2) why should people observe them?

    Virtue ethics is the answer to both questions.

    Well no, those are precisely the two questions that virtue ethics dodges or loftily supposes to be already answered, and that was just my point.

    Where does the conclusion that fairness is a virtue come from? Because it makes you a better person? Then where does the conclusion that it makes you a better person come from? Or the conclusion that you should aim to be a better person in the first place, for that matter?

    Putting virtue ethics into the same category as consequentialism or deontology looks like a category error to me. VE is a strategy to achieve outcomes that can only be justified as desirable by going beyond, or starting outside of, VE. What do you say to somebody who is happiest when they are being unfair and destructive if not apply to consequences?

    Note that I am not saying that consequentialism or deontology succeed; in fact my current stance is that ethics is turtles all the way down anyway, and that we just have to accept that ethics come from human fiat and work from there. But at least C&D are trying, at least they are aware of the problem!

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  30. Dear SciSal:
    Slavery, as practiced in Athens’ silver mines, and, later, Roman ore mines, was the worst. It was quickly lethal. And it did not stop with treating foreigners as less than animals. Aristotle’s student, and others he was familiar with (senior Macedonian general Antipater) enslaved all of Greece, shortly thereafter.

    When the mood is to enslave, it does not stop anywhere, short of the brute force of invaders (and that’s exactly what happened).

    Greco-Roman slavery was particularly harsh. There were much milder forms of slavery in Babylon, a millennium earlier, and Egypt used no slavery (except for captured enemy armies).

    Do Smith says that it is “presentism” to condemn slavery. But the Germans, at the time, condemned it, at least to the industrial scale the Greco-Romans engaged into it. Archeology has confirmed that small German farms did not use slaves.

    Resting all of society upon slavery was not cautious: as soon as the Greco-Romans ran out of conquest, they ran out of slaves, and the GDP collapsed (it peaked within a couple of decades from Augustus’ accession to permanent Princeps and censor status). Another problem was the rise of enormous slavery propelled latifundia, giant Senatorial farms which put most Romans out of employment, and fed plutocracy.

    I was unaware that I was ambling down a well-trodden road. Thus I can only observe that the notion, although admittedly ugly, is entirely natural (as a naïve, untutored, independent mind independently discovers it readily).

    Newton’s researches in… shall we call it proto-chemistry? Or Biblical considerations, were not viewed by him, or any smart observer, as consequences of his mechanics.

    Aristotle’s ethical shortcomings were not restricted to his opinion on slavery, and one can only assume that they were consequences of his general ethics. Whereas Demosthenes was a philosophical, and physical hero, ethically, Aristotle sounds like someone raised at the court of the fascist plutocrats, Philippe and Alexander of Macedonia. As, indeed, happened (his father was physician to the Macedonian crown).

    There were consequences to Aristotle’s ethics. Alexander had ethical reasons to annihilate Thebes, and sell surviving women and children into slavery. It’s natural to wonder if he shared them with his teacher. Another example of even heavier import: Aristotle’s enormous influence on Rome’s first moralist, Cicero.

    Aristotle comforted important Romans, centuries later, that ethics was all about feeling virtuous.

    When Consul Cicero repressed savagely the Conspiracy of Cataline, without bothering with proper judicial procedure, he felt himself to be the incarnation of the eight virtues.
    Cicero’s enormous ethical breach helped demolish the democratic Republic.

    At all times, tyrants have proclaimed themselves virtuous. That’s tyranny 101. Proclaiming that, from now on, virtue will dominate ethics, besides being self-evident, and thus empty, is just self-congratulatory. Self-congratulations lay at the evil end of the spectrum of the examined life.

    Instead, as Demosthenes pointed out, ethics ought to rest on survival. If the aim was survival, the non-conflictual, disunited approach to Aristotle’s bankrollers (Philippe and Alexander) was suicide.

    Greece recovered freedom 23 centuries later.

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  31. 1. Assume that most virtue ethics is Aristotelian
    1.1 Therefore, it is based not only on having a telos, a goal, but also a First Cause, or, in modern lingo, an etiology.
    1.1.1 Thus, it appeals to people of metaphysical bent, certainly including, but not necessarily limited to theists.
    1.1.2 Thus, it answers the two rhetorical questions Peter presents, that is: 1) where do they come from? 2) why should people observe them?
    1.2 Is this first cause part of the appeal to non-metaphysicians as well? I’ll let Massimo speak for himself, but I’ll offer a tentative yes.
    1.2.1 This is based on issues of how we can adjudge humans moral without free will, whether one considers free will, or something like it, in polarity with physical determinism, or even with psychological “constraint.” (I reject physical determinism, and while I certainly accept psychological constraint, I don’t see it in “polarity” with something like free will. Defining certain moral goals as key to flourishing allows one to keep a telos, while rejecting an etiology and the (quasi)-metaphysical Prime Mover behind it
    1.2.2 However, this seems to leave while “moral quality A” is of more import than “moral quality B” somewhat hanging in the air. Dan Dennett called this a “skyhook.”
    2. Why do we need to at least try to find another theory of (semi)-normative ethics?
    2.1 Virtue ethics, by itself, cannot provide a contained moral system for non-metaphysicians, for secularists, per 1.2.
    2.2 I am unaware of secularists seriously buying into deontological theories.
    2.3 Consequentialist theories, as I have noted in my previous comment, and in other comments here and at Rationally Speaking, suffer from lacking a “view from nowhere.”
    2.4 Per my call for a “semi-normative” theory, per 2.1 and 2.3, at least for secularists, we may not be able to craft a fully normative theory.
    2.4.1 Such a theory would strive toward the goal of normative ethical thought while accepting that it was an ideal, not reality
    2.4.2 Such a pragmatic approach would bring in scientific study, and avoid committing to moral “laws,” especially if the term “laws” in connection with ethics or morals had religious overtones
    3. What other options are available?
    3.1 Pragmatic ethics, not-ironically, referring to 2.4.2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pragmatic_ethics
    3.2 Can a program of pragmatic ethics be undertaken, on a scientific basis, without venturing into the world of “scientism”? I say yes.
    3.2.1 First, the long-standing caveat that scientific knowledge and advances are provisional should guard against that, with all but the most dedicated scientism-ists. (An ugly neologism, I know.)
    3.2.2 Second, the actual state of knowledge in fields like ev psych, ethology, and neuroscience is, as I have noted before, no more advanced than the equivalent of the Early Bronze Age. Honest admitters of that would also serve as a check.
    3.3 Is current pragmatic ethics perfect? No. I reject the idea that ethics evolves, for one thing. However, pragmatic ethics does allow for “dialogue” with the traditional three normative ethics systems.
    Proto-Tractatus II: 500

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  32. >>This idea that because Aristotle lived in a society that condoned slavery therefore virtue ethics is bullocks keeps rearing its ugly head, but seems to me a total non sequitur. You might as well say that we should throw out Newtonian mechanics because, after all, Newton was also interested in alchemy and the Bible.

    I think it’s somewhat relevant, but it depends on what point is being made. The author doesn’t simply advocate virtue ethics as an ethical theory that answers questions along the lines of “what makes an action right/just/moral/etc.?” The bulk of the essay advocates virtue ethics as an effective means of *actually getting people to behave better*. So if practitioners of virtue ethics show systematic bad behavior (such as Greek slavery, or your choice of misconduct by the Catholic Church), then that is a straightforward empirical challenge to the alleged effectiveness of virtue ethics to produce ethical behavior.

    >>Exactly. Utilitarianism relies on a hazardous, unreliable cost/benefit calculation….The great weakness of utilitarianism is that judgement of consequences is limited by situational boundaries.

    This is a misunderstanding of what utilitarianism is. Utilitarianism is a theory about what the rightness or wrongness of an action consists in – it doesn’t say anything about what the *method* or *decision procedure* should be for figuring out whether a particular action is right or wrong in a particular situation. If engaging in complex and unreliable cost/benefit analysis reduces the overall level of happiness, the utilitarian will say “don’t do that!” If more happiness is produced by following rough rules of thumb, or by instilling virtuous character traits at a young age, then the utilitarian will say, “do that!” What you’ve given here isn’t an *objection* to utilitarianism, but rather a *utilitarian argument* for adopting a certain kind of decision procedure.

    >>As you said, both the utilitarian and the deontologist might want to instil certain virtues in support of their own systems…What this indicates is that virtue ethics are the foundation that support the other two major branches of ethics.

    No, you’re conflating different issues. Utilitarianism and deontology are answers to the metaphysical question of what the rightness or wrongness of an action consists in. That is a totally separate issue from the practical, psychological/sociological question of what policies are most effective for producing ethical behavior in a population. Confusing these issues is like confusing questions about the foundations of mathematics with questions about math pedagogy.

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  33. Hi lqrvy,

    It’s fine to take issue with various formulations of absolutism and universalism in ethical theories, but you should at least recognize that they are motivated by worthwhile moral considerations.

    The intuition that there should be (or is) one true ethical approach stems from a category error, and that category error is best described in the metaphor “conceptual space is physical space”. For example, I don’t think it’s at all an accident that deontology and consequentialism were first articulated clearly by students of Reason, nor am I surprised that students of Reason would import (albeit invalidly!) the ideological tools that proved so useful in revolutionising the study of physical space to the study of various conceptual spaces. That the ethical theories of students of Reason would end up looking a lot like Reason should be expected, frankly.

    Well, “analyzing your choices in the context of your particular identity, your particular roles, and your particular goals” doesn’t always say much about the *morality* of what you’re doing. Perhaps you’re a mob enforcer who cruelly tortures and murders innocent people who don’t kowtow to the intimidation of your bosses…It’s not clear to me which part of your ‘particular’ identity, roles or goals would determine that you are doing something immoral.

    I don’t doubt for a second that the best practices associated with being a mob enforcer are not what I would generally associate with moral or virtuous behaviour on my part. But I don’t usually consider myself an enforcer, nor am I generally trying to be an enforcer. I would say that to the extent that someone is required to put on the enforcement hat at work (e.g. a police officer), however, it does make sense to understand their best practices in that light. So in the exact same way that I authorise a police officer to carry a gun and shoot people (only if necessary, of course) but do *not* authorise that behaviour for normal citizens, I would say that it is moral for a police officer to engage a criminal and (potentially) use deadly force, but that it is immoral for a normal citizen to do that.

    In short, I expect different people in different roles to behave differently according to their roles and goals, and what is moral behaviour for one person certainly isn’t necessarily moral behaviour for another. Now, obviously there’s still room for a dilemma in a virtue system (what do I do when the best practice for my role/identity #1 is incompatible with the best practice for my role/identity #2 and my role/identity #3?), but the virtue of the virtue approach (so to speak) is its ability to articulate the dilemma and provide me the tools I need to make a decision about who I am and who I want to be. In the sense that deontological and/or consequentialist approaches can’t be multivalent like this and provide options, though, they’re much inferior approaches to morality.

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  34. “What do you say to somebody who is happiest when they are being unfair and destructive if not apply to consequences?”

    When did you first realize that you might be a sociopath?

    No, seriously, you do realize that you are first positing values/norms through which you filter or evaluate the consequences

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  35. @Patrice Ayme

    “Virtue ethics was founded by Aristotle, who considered slavery to be necessary… Thus Aristotle contradicted several of the eight virtues he claimed to found ethics on. The fact that his founder could not make virtue ethics work, is telling. Indeed the “virtues” are derivative, not absolute. “

    I think this is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I’m not sure there is any ethical system that could outright preclude slavery as arguably morally permissive. You could make a consequentialist argument in favour of it by pointing to the aggregate benefits as outweighing the individual suffering of the slaves (or even the averaged benefits for that matter), or even that the outcome for the slaves was a better one for them as individuals (this is precisely one of the arguments slave owners in the South made against the abolishinists). Deontology, on the face of it, also doesn’t seem to naturally preclude slavery, for instance by claiming certain people lack the minimal capacity for rational morality and are thereby not deserving of moral consideration. I mean have a look at some of Kant’s attitudes towards and comments on Africans if you don’t believe me. Your own apparently preferred naturalist ethics wouldn’t necessarily preclude it either.

    Part of the point of the ongoing project of debating and discussing ethics is to refine and develop our moral views, to weigh competing interpretations and moral claims within any given ‘ethical system.’ In other words, there is no system, even absolutist systems, that are set in black letter law and don’t require interpretation (and therefore open them up to debate). Even Divine Command has been endlessly debated and re-interpreted by theologians over the centuries.

    The point isn’t that there might be arguments for slavery to be made within these frameworks (and therefore they should be rejected outright), it’s whether we have developed better arguments within them that show it is less desirable or permissible. And we have.

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  36. An interesting essay that made me realize how little time was spent on explicit “moral education” during my school years. I guess children are expected to develop their moral framework by following the example of others (and maybe that’s what they will do anyway, since “do as I say, don’t do as I do” never quite seems to work).

    What intrigues me about virtue ethics is that it shifts the locus of attention on the individual as the source of good or bad action. And who knows, it might bring some good when more people realize that their behavior shapes their character just as much as their character guides their behavior.

    I am at a loss as to how virtue ethics can answer meta-ethical concerns however, and also noticed that the author made a fully consequentialist (utilitarian even) argument for adopting virtue ethics.

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  37. Hi labnut,

    One part of what you’re saying is that if we promote the idea of virtues in our education system and society then we might have better compliance with rules and people might also feel better about themselves. I agree, and it is maybe worth trying this to greater extent than we currently do.

    However, as others have said, this is far from being a system in itself, since it doesn’t tell you what things to regard as virtues, and it doesn’t give a prescription for trading different moral goods against each other and thus actually making the rules that society does need.

    The high incarceration rate, high rates of recidivism and increasing wealth inequity are strong pointers.

    The USA has a high incarceration rate (and is a weird and dysfunctional society in several ways) but the rest of the West does not (being approx a tenth that in the US). Crime rates, wealth inequality and similar were all much worse in Victorian England than today. On a broad perspective, today’s European societies are as good or better on most indicators than anything in human history.

    Further, it seems to me that “moral progress” is discussed all the time in society, in terms (for example) of the human rights agenda, of politics, and the proper role of the welfare state, of equality legislation. Society’s requirements regarding treatment of people of different race, gender, sexuality, et cetera, have changed hugely over recent decades. Where big moral defects are exposed, such as the banking crisis, this causes societal angst and soul-searching. Thus I don’t see any big problem that needs fixing, though I still agree as in my first paragraph.

    There is an (understandable) tendancy of the religious to view a decrease in the hold of religion as a symptom of moral decline, but (equally understandly) the non-religious don’t see it like that.

    @Alexander Schmidt-Lebuhn:

    … we just have to accept that ethics come from human fiat and work from there.

    Yep!

    (Meta-ethics sorted in one sentence.)

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  38. > Is there any empirical evidence that teaching people Virtue Ethics actually
    > makes them behave more ethically?
    >
    >> I’m not aware of systematic studies on this (then again, are there systematic
    >> studies on ethical upbringing in general?). But unless you are ready to
    >> question the very idea of educational upbringing I don’t see any reason to
    >> doubt it has effects. And of course there is tons of anecdotal evidence, all
    >> the way back to the ancient Greeks.

    That’s not a very convincing answer. Earlier this year Stanford University held a panel discussion titled “Does Teaching Ethics do any Good?” (http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/may/ethics-in-society-051314.html) As the resulting press release stated: “Approaching the topic from diverse academic backgrounds, the Stanford professors who participated in the discussion agreed that ethics classes cannot be expected to make students more ethical.”

    If you want to convince practical people to actually do something like this, I think you need to make a better case that it will work.

    Best regards, Bill Skaggs

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  39. Bill, this is evidence in your book? The entirely personal opinions of two people who happen to teach ethics? And what exactly would you do instead in order to help people develop a moral dimension? Send them to church?

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  40. Learning and teaching are obviously closely connected but nonetheless not the same. People who engage in a market society learn lessons about how to treat other people, which is what I think morals are. Bottom line thinking, everything has a price, do what the boss says regardless, I’m not sure how virtue ethics can be relevant when it doesn’t seem to have much to say.

    I have no idea how anyone can really think schools haven’t taught character. Sportsmanship has been heavily emphasized for a very long time.

    Aristotle’s justification of slavery directly relates to his ethics, whereas Newton’s alchemy conspicuously does not relate to his mechanics.

    I thought the primary historical example of virtue ethics was Confucianism. My understanding is that this is essentially naturalistic with no real interest in what we today call the supernatural. Yet performance of the rites is regarded as a characteristic of the sage (virtuous character.) Perhaps this foreign example shows more clearly virtue ethics’ conventionalism, the commitment to the widely accepted mores. Virtue ethics is not so much then about what’s right or wrong in dealing with other people, but about how to become the sage, or the lover of wisdom, or noble, as opposed to the common people?

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  41. steve, yes Confucianism is a(other) example of virtue ethics, develop independently from, and yet with many overlaps, the Aristotelian version. I really don’t think one can make an argument that “Aristotle’s justification of slavery directly relates to his ethics,” and you are incorrect about Newton as well, since he thought that his theory highlighted the works of God. At any rate, why are we talking about Aristotle? Surely we should be debating current versions of virtue ethics, the ones proposed by modern philosophers from Philippa Foot on.

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  42. Bill,
    That’s not a very convincing answer

    It is a real world example of an educator’s actual experience. It cannot be so lightly dismissed.

    professors who participated in the discussion agreed that ethics classes cannot be expected to make students more ethical.

    The human animal has proven to be an educable and trainable animal, capable of acquiring a great range of skills of great difficulty. The real problem is we are living in an age of self pleasuring hedonism where the concept of moral restraint seems foreign. That does not make the problem insoluble but it does make it more difficult.

    I think you need to make a better case that it will work.

    This is a short article, not a book. Think of it as the opening salvo in an important conversation.

    Coel,
    Thus I don’t see any big problem that needs fixing, though I still agree as in my first paragraph.
    The many victims of crime might not agree with you. And I am sure the increasing number of people stuck on the lower rungs of the earnings ladder will not agree with you.

    See also this article about scientific misconduct – http://onforb.es/1nb78bW

    Patrice,
    all moral systems have this in common, many people flout their moral norms. That is in the nature of people, some are venal, vindictive, selfish, etc. It is the free rider problem. But the bigger problem is that society constructs moral boundaries. Within the moral boundary they apply their moral norms but they do not apply them to people outside the moral boundary.

    Your reply was more of the same and it simply ignored my point. Repeating your point of view without considering my reply is not a conversation.

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  43. An interesting post with a definite pragmatist turn. As Marx and many others have said, what is the point of philosophy if it doesn’t lead to action?

    Some of the 52 virtues referred to seem a little obvious and light weight: “Cleanliness means washing often, keeping your body clean, and wearing clean clothes. It is putting into your body and your mind only the things that keep you healthy. It is staying free from harmful drugs. It is cleaning up mistakes and making a fresh start.” Immature and reckless humans nevertheless go right ahead, consequences be damned.

    This virtue may actually be a vice most of the time: “Loyalty is staying true to someone. It is standing up for something you believe in without wavering. It is being faithful to your family, country, school, friends or ideals, when the going gets tough as well as when things are good. With loyalty, you build relationships that last forever.” Loyalty to false ideas and restricted groups seems, in fact, to be a common factor in all wars. Loyalty presupposes not examining all the available relevant information. Sometimes it is better to tell your best friend that she is wrong, and to be prepared to deal with the consequences.

    “Service is giving to others, making a difference in their lives. You consider their needs as important as your own.” This sounds nice but it may be very counterproductive.

    We could go on. But I completely agree that teaching our children a healthy respect for virtue and morals is paramount. The problem is that individuals and groups will never agree on the details and will also resist having outside authorities dictate the rules by which we should live and exist. Each one of us is a consummately unique individual and many of us would insist on “doing it my way”, a la Frank Sinatra.

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